Plot. I was in college when I read this novella by Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) and surely must have understood only one-tenth of it at best. Reading for plot then, as one does at that age, there is not much to hang your hat on. The narrator, Marlow, captains a scow on an African River, and after many months of delays finally reaches an outpost run by an ivory hunter named Kurtz.
The Paris-based company both men work for regards Kurtz with undiluted awe. He is some kind of genius on the fast track to an upper-level executive position. So everyone says. Marlow is worldly wise enough to question the enthusiastic claims made for him. Nothing else he witnesses along the way is what he’s been led to expect.
|Joseph Conrad, 1904|
Always there are rumors about Kurtz, and for the reader, the mystery of the man grows in intensity. Marlow himself becomes obsessed with meeting him. The months-long journey up the winding river prolongs the growing suspense.
The ominous presence of the jungle pressing in on both sides is so full of warning you can’t miss it. That is unless you are 20, like I was, and blithely reading this as an adventure story along the lines of H. Rider Haggard. The portrayal of the colonial presence in Africa is itself full of horrors. But there’s no mistaking that truly unutterable and inconceivable horror lurks beyond the trees that line the river. Not the jungle itself but some Black Hole-scale evil mutely watches from the shadowy undergrowth.
|Steamboat on the Congo|
Meanwhile, he is still an intelligent man, educated in Europe. He’s able to understand that civilization is no more than the thin veneer over a murderous criminality waiting to be granted free rein. The evil that inhabits the jungle’s darkness parallels the evil that lives within the darkness of the human heart.
More disturbing still is the trance-like worship into which Kurtz’s admirers fall. A wandering young man from Russia has had the privilege of learning at the great man’s knee. While he grasps that Kurtz is dangerous, he happily remains in his grip. He is an instructive study in the self-effacing devotion people gladly bestow on a demagogue.
|Map of Africa, 1917|
The story, of course, doesn’t stop there. Marlow returns home and pays his respects to the woman who was Kurtz’s “intended.” Fully absorbed in her own melodrama, she is in deep mourning for a heroic man who had long ceased to exist as she knew him. Preserving her romantic myth about Kurtz, Marlow makes no attempt to tell her the truth of what happened. The horror that lies at the heart of civilized men remains a secret.
Marlow himself. I’m sure this has been discussed by numerous literary critics and that I have nothing new to say. I can’t wrap up, though, without mentioning a couple things about the narrator of this horror story.
Here we have another Allan Quartermaine. An adventurer, he has seen a lot of the world, and his knowledge has made him something of a social misfit. His friends, who sit on the ship’s deck on the Thames listening to his story, don’t believe everything he says. He speaks with the irony of a man who has given up a lot of beliefs of his own.
|Sunrise on the Congo, photo by Bsm15|
Reason and science may have produced progress in the world, but material advancements don’t elevate the human spirit. They can be used for unspeakable ends (as those of us who lived through the 20th century well know). Marlow, ahead of his time, knows this, and we can sense in the telling of his story that the knowledge of it makes him an isolated and lonely man.
So that’s Heart of Darkness for me 50 years later. It is a powerful and well-told story that leaves you shuddering at the end. Unlike a lot of horror fiction, its vision is not one that recedes as the last page is turned. Its truth has an unsettling way of lingering. What's your take?
Heart of Darkness is available free online at Project Gutenberg.
Image credits: Wikimedia Commons
Coming up: Will Lillibridge, Ben Blair (1905)